By the turn of the century, there was a shift in the tone of the Congress. Political leaders and activists now wanted to go beyond the political methods of the early nationalists. There were many factors that contributed to this shift.
The Indian Councils Act of 1892, mentioned earlier, had failed to satisfy anyone. In 1898, a law was passed making it an offence to excite feelings of disaffection towards the foreign government; in 1904, the Indian Official Secrets Act restricted freedom of the press. Bal Gangadhar Tilak was imprisoned in 1897 and the appointment of Curzon as Viceroy only fuelled anti-Congress attitudes. The British government sought to restrict higher education for Indians and control universities through the Indian Universities Act of 1904. This led to disaffection amongst educated Indians who were now attracted to the new radical political ideas.
International events also influenced Indian politics. The rise of modern Japan and its victory in the Russo-Japanese war of 1905 demonstrated that a small Asian country could defeat a mighty European power. Nationalist movements in Turkey, Egypt, Ireland and Russia further encouraged Indian nationalists. The earlier method of demanding reforms was now seen as redundant and self-government came to be seen as the objective of the movement. A radical trend had already emerged in Bengal and Maharashtra.
Leaders like Bal Gangadhar Tilak in Maharashtra and Rajnarain Bose in Bengal had endorsed no-tax campaigns. Tilak had turned Ganpati and Shivaji festivals into national symbols in Maharashtra. Now this militant nationalist trend within the Congress came to be represented by leaders like Tilak, Bipin Chandra Pal, Lala Lajpat Rai and Aurobindo Ghosh.
It was, however, a political step by the British government which provided the platform for a full flowering of radical methods. On 20 July 1905, Lord Curzon issued an order dividing Bengal into two parts. East Bengal and Assam with a Muslim majority were separated from West Bengal, a predominantly Hindu-majority area. The official explanation for this step was that the province was too big to be well administered. However, Indian public opinion saw it as an attempt at containing the widespread nationalist sentiment in Bengal. H.H. Risley, Home Secretary to Government of India, commented in December 1904, “Bengal united is a power. Bengal divided will pull in several different ways.”
This move was opposed by the leaders of the Congress and Bengal. In addition, a popular movement against partition emerged in which various sections of society like zamindars, merchants, lawyers, students, the urban poor and women participated. The partition was seen as a challenge to Indian nationalism and an attempt at the division of Bengalis on communal lines.
On 7 August 1905 a huge rally was held in Calcutta. 16 October 1905, the day the partition was promulgated, was observed as a day of national mourning. People fasted, walked barefoot and bathed in the Ganga. Rabindranath Tagore wrote the famous song, ‘Amar Sonar Bangla’ and huge crowds went around singing it. Bande Mataram became the theme song of the movement. Hindus and Muslims tied rakhis on each others’ wrists to symbolize unity. Foreign cloth was burnt in huge bonfires and shops selling foreign cloth were picketed. Swadeshi and boycott became special features of this movement.
Apart from this, national educational institutions were set up by nationalists so that students could get an alternative to colonial education. In the anti-partition agitation, students and upper-middle class women were most active. From then on, women took an active part in the national movement. The swadeshi movement spread to other areas of India and become a nation-wide movement. The government took repressive measures to suppress the movement.
The press was gagged, students beaten up, meetings and singing of Bande Mataram in public was banned. In Punjab, Lala Lajpat Rai and Ajit Singh were deported; Chidambaram Pillai in Madras and Hari Sarvottam Rao in Andhra were arrested. Tilak was arrested and sentenced to six years of imprisonment. By 1908, the government had succeeded in stifling the movement, but nationalist sentiments were far from dead.
Growth of Revolutionary Nationalism
When the anti-partition movement was suppressed by the government, many of the youth in Bengal took to the cult of the bomb. They were influenced by Irish terrorists and Russian Nihilists. In 1906, a newspaper called Yugantar was set up which argued that force must be countered by force. These revolutionary nationalists adopted violent methods like assassination of influential British officials and dacoities to procure funds and arms.
The two most important secret societies established to carry out these activities were Anushilan Samiti and Jugantar. In April 1908, Prafulla Chaki and Khudiram Bose threw a bomb at a carriage in Muzaffarpur, which they mistakenly thought carried a British judge Kingsford. An attack was carried out on the Viceroy, Lord Hardinge, by Sachindranath Sanyal and Rash Behari Bose in December 1912. Most of these nationalists were arrested, tried and hanged. Between 1908 and 1918, about 186 nationalists were convicted or killed.
Congress after the Partition of Bengal
By 1907, the early nationalists had exhausted their historical role. The government believed that the Congress led by this group could be easily subdued since it had no mass base. It was in this context that Lord Curzon had declared that the Congress was tottering to its fall. He refused to meet the Congress president or its delegation.
Once the militant nationalist trend grew strong, the British wanted to weaken the national movement by a complex policy of repression–conciliation–suppression. They sought to repress the militant nationalists, conciliate the early nationalists through political reforms and then, once the early nationalists were on their side, they could go ahead and annihilate the militant nationalists. But this policy did not quite work.
Lord Minto, the Viceroy of India from 1905 to 1910, came up with a scheme for reform of Legislative Councils in which he wanted the co-operation of the early nationalists. This led to a split in the Congress since at this time, the popular swadeshi movement was going on. The early nationalists agreed to cooperate but the militant nationalists were opposed to it. At the Surat session of the Congress held in 1907, the split became official. In the years from 1905 to 1907, there were many disagreements between the two groups on various issues.
The militant nationalists had wanted to extend the Swadeshi movement to the rest of India but the early nationalists opposed it; militant nationalists wanted to extend the boycott of foreign goods to boycott of the government as a whole, but again the early nationalists disagreed. Aurobindo Ghosh was active on the militant side and wanted a split so that they could go their own way.
Pherozeshah Mehta, who led the early nationalists, also favoured a split as he felt that the militant approach would destroy Congress as an organization. Tilak among the militant nationalists and Gokhale among early nationalists were opposed to a split but their views did not prevail. The split at Surat was quite acrimonious. The government now launched a massive attack on militant nationalists: their newspapers were suppressed and Tilak was deported to Burma for six years. Aurobindo Ghosh was also arrested, Bipin Chandra Pal and Lala Lajpat Rai retired from politics temporarily. With the militant nationalists repressed and the early nationalists lacking any support in the country, political activity slowed down.
Formation of Muslim League
A little before this, in 1906, the All India Muslim League had been established at Dhaka under British encouragement by a few Muslim leaders led by the Nawab of Dhaka who argued for a separate political path for India’s Muslims. Their argument was for cooperating with the British government in order to make social and educational advancement possible for the Muslims.
They also wanted separate electoral safeguards for the Muslims in India based on the argument that they formed a numerical minority in the country and needed to be protected from domination by the majority Hindus.
Indian Councils Act, 1909
Soon after these developments, in 1909, the Indian Councils Act was passed based on Morley-Minto scheme of reforms. According to these reforms, the number of elected members in imperial and provincial Legislative Councils was to be increased. One Indian member would be included in the Governor-General’s Executive Council. However, these councils lacked any real power and were merely advisory bodies.
Morley, the Secretary of State for India, said, “If it could be said that this chapter of reforms led directly or necessarily up to the establishment of a Parliamentary system in India, I, for one, would have nothing at all to do with it.” Under this Act, the system of separate electorates was introduced for Muslims. This led to the growth of Muslim communalism based on separate electoral reservations.
National Movement during the First World War:
Home Rule Leagues
The outbreak of the First World War and the involvement of India as a British colony in the war had some severe consequences for India. It meant heavy taxation, high prices for ordinary goods, shortage of basic commodities—all of which generated a lot of misery among the common people. As such, resentment against colonial rule was on the rise and the people were ready to join a movement.
In 1914, Tilak was released after six years of imprisonment in Burma. He came back to a quiet country almost devoid of any political activity. His first act was to try to get back into the Congress. It was at this time that Annie Besant was also persuading early nationalist leaders to allow Tilak and other militant nationalist leaders to return to the Congress. However, at the 1914 Congress session, this did not materialize and Besant and Tilak went ahead with the formation of their own Home Rule Leagues.
In 1915, Annie Besant demanded self-government for India and Tilak stepped up political activity. Militant nationalists were allowed to rejoin the Congress in 1916. Tilak formed his Home Rule League in April 1916 and in September of the same year, Besant set up her own Home Rule. Tilak’s League worked in Maharashtra, Karnataka, Central Provinces and Berar and Besant’s in the rest of the country. By March 1917, Besant had 7,000 members in her Home Rule League which included Jawaharlal Nehru in Allahabad. By April 1917, 14,000 members had enlisted in Tilak’s Home Rule League.
The Home Rule Leagues popularized the demand for home rule through public meetings and writings in the press and distribution of League literature. For example, three lakh copies of pamphlets arguing for self-government were sold in 1916 itself. Tilak made his famous declaration, “Swaraj is my birthright and I shall have it.”
In December 1916, the annual session of the Congress was held in Lucknow where the presence of the Home Rule League members was appreciable. Militant nationalists were welcomed back to the Congress. The demand for more constitutional reforms as a step towards self-government was made and for the first time, a joint meeting of the two Leagues was held at the Congress session. The government came down harshly on this combined force. Besant was arrested and in protest, Sir S. Subramania Aiyar gave up his knighthood.
In solidarity, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Madan Mohan Malaviya, Surendranath Banerjea joined the Home Rule League. Tilak gave a call for passive resistance. A petition for home rule was circulated with the target of getting a million signatures of peasants and workers. The Montagu announcement of 20 August 1917 was the government’s response to this movement. Besant was released in September 1917 and became the president of the Congress in December 1917.
However, during 1918, the Home Rule movement declined since the early nationalist leadership once again wanted to cooperate over the 1919 reforms and did not support passive resistance which Tilak had called for. This session is also known for the Congress-League pact. Behind this pact was a sincere desire to allay minority fears about majority domination.
Tilak and Jinnah were the forces behind this since both of them emphasized the importance of Hindu-Muslim unity. The two organizations passed the same resolutions at their sessions and put forward a joint scheme of political reforms based on separate electorates and self-government. There was a tremendous enthusiasm over this unity. The government was encouraged to follow a policy of constitutional concessions which took the form of Montagu-Chelmsford reforms of 1918.
Mohammed Ali Jinnah, who at a later stage in his political career, advocated the two-nation theory, strove hard to promote Hindu-Muslim unity during these initial years. When the Muslim League was formed in 1906 in Dhaka, Jinnah did not join it. A great admirer of Congress stalwarts like Dadabhai Naoroji, Gokhale, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Annie Besant, he attended a Congress session for the first time in 1904.
He functioned as Secretary to Dadabhai Naoroji who presided over the 1906 session in Calcutta. Initially he rejected the separate electorate formula on grounds of national integration. However, he was later elected to the Central Legislative Council as the Muslim member from Bombay.
He used to attend the annual sessions of both the Congress and the Muslim League. He initiated the move for setting up of a League-Congress joint committee for Hindu-Muslim unity that eventually led to the Congress-League Pact of 1916. After the death of Gokhale and Pherozeshah Mehta, Jinnah seemed to have felt lonely in the Congress. Meanwhile, the Muslim League elected him as its President in 1916 and that marked his formal exit from the Congress.
The major impact of the Home Rule Movement was the popularization of the demand for self-government. Through this movement, organizational linkages were developed between town and country which proved significant in later years. This generation of nationalist leaders formed the main support base of Gandhiji’s non-violent movement for India’s independence.